Tuesday, 26 February 2013

In Memoriam - "Tony the Greek"

I work a lot with people who are dying, or their family members. Every so often, I go to a funeral. This is always because I have developed some kind of special connection with the person who has died. I haven't made a habit of it; I find that however positive, realistic or even celebratory the ritual is, I am always left with the heavy reality of loss and death. And actually, I don't want to dilute that important inner reaction, by sitting through too many such occasions. I want to keep a healthy respect for deaths, and remain open to their impacts.

In the Autumn of last year, I met a man in his 80's. he was rather isolated socially and kept himself to himself. But he was clearly needing some support, both physical and psychological. I was asked to spend some time with him, not in a formal capacity, but simply to help build some trust and communication between him and the organization. So I went over and had a chat.

"Tony" quickly started talking about his background and his nostalgia for 'home' (Greece). I commented that many men of his age 'back home' would be sitting outside a cafe in the sunshine, smoking and drinking black tea, playing chequers or cards or........

"Backgammon! I would be playing Backgammon. Oh, yes." His face came alive. "Do you play?"

No, I didn't, sadly. I had never learned. "I will teach you! Will you be here next week? I will bring my board. I will show you how."

And so our relationship cemented. Week by week, he would bring his backgammon board. It came in a tatty supermarket bag, but when opened it revealed a beautiful sultry mix of dark brown wood inlays. It looked to me like it was itself Greek. Small intricate geometric patterns sat around and inside the traditional Backgammon board, with its triangular spikes pointing upwards.

The basics explained, Tony set about teaching me. Advice came thick and - oh my, so very fast. His play was accomplished, slick, and natural. He played at least 2 moves in advance. I, on the other hand, needed so so much time to think, and think, and finally decide what piece to move, and then move it and -

"Noooooo! Why are you putting it there? I will knock you!" The voice was deep and gravelly and filled with life, though it came from a frail and fragile body. So frequent were his interventions, it seemed to me he was actually playing two games - his and mine - and enjoying the educational commentary.
"I think this time, we are having a game of running"...... "I see your stone here, but I am taking a chance anyway." ...... "You throw a three or a six, I will get you - oh yes, you will be sorry."
I tried hard to keep up and absorb the teachings.

At first I had felt a little worried about this use of my time. What would my colleagues think? But after a few weeks, as this teaching continued, I noticed the therapeutic value in what we were doing. This man - frail, weak, and debilitated by disease, was adjusting to a shrinking life. When we played backgammon, he had opportunities to be cunning. Deceptive. Aggressive. Frustrated. Angry, even. Kind. Generous. Sporting. Fair. Funny. "Double six, baby!"
He reminisced. In between games, he would tell me stories of his life; how he & his wife had met over 60 years ago. How he had built up a business. How he had been widely known in his part of London.
And he was teaching me, a younger man, who knew nothing. What a glorious opportunity for him to feel, and share, the wisdom of his age. And for me to learn from him. Something important passes between old and young when this occurs; I remember reading something about this in the men's literature (Alan Chinen, perhaps, or maybe Moore & Gilette). The older man gains from his role as initiator, and the younger man grows by initiation into a new version of manhood.
It also brought to mind the life-stages suggested by Erik Erikson; particularly "Generativity vs Stagnation", and "Integrity vs Despair". One reading of the term "Generativity" suggests a kind of passing-on of knowledge, values, culture, in a way which enriches the lives of younger people, but also wards off the feelings of stagnation and lack of purpose that are possible in older life. Generativity, then, is about contributing to a community - large or small- that will continue after one's death.

Eventually, in the New Year, there came a day when something shifted. After looking around the board, and again at my dice (several times), I realised there was a move I should make; one he'd been reiterating to me for a long time. Silently I picked up the piece and placed it in a good, solid, strategic position.
"Hmmmmm," came the approval. "You are learning."
Inside, I positively glowed. How wonderful.
And later, when a stranger came to look on in puzzlement at our game, I was given an even greater honour. He looked up at the spectator and said:  "I'm so glad I met Ian."
Thence our relationship rebalanced. I grew, and we became less unequal (although to be fair, the change wasn't huge. He had been playing for 76 years, and I only a few weeks!)

I fear that, as the ageing population grows, there is an increasing potential for them to be unconsciously resented as a burden on the state and society as a whole. Hints of this can be seen already in the growing UK debate about the future of old-age care, and how it's paid for. How sad, then, that this might get in the way of our learning from them, respecting them, and appreciating their role in teaching us the values - and value - of life.

As long as I live, whenever I play Backgammon, I will hear that voice. And I hope I grow old enough to teach the game to another, in such a meaningful way.

Thank you, Tony. And blessings.


Tuesday, 12 February 2013

The Carom Transaction in Social Media

I have fallen out of love with Facebook. I have become attached to Twitter. I have discovered LinkedIn. This is my current position; it may change!

Over the several years that I've been involved in social media, I have noticed more the vast array of transactions on display. Some social, some psychological, but all the different permutations of the Berne's original dual ego-state model are there.

Looking at the different ways in which people use the platforms of Facebook, Twitter et al, I have been reminded of an old, seldom-used bit of Transactional Analysis theory which I now feel deserves a fresh look.

The Carom Transaction

In the wider literature this first appears in Woolams & Brown (1978) although it's a very brief mention. Very simply, it's a kind of transaction where the speaker says something to another person in the vicinity of a third party ... the third party is the real recipient of the strokes. It's an unusual transaction because of its use of an intermediary. It is also an example of the social & psychological levels of action (i.e. Berne's third rule of communication*)

Here's a basic example:

"Carom" is a broadly European term that is found in Carom Billiards, where players must deliberately bounce (carom) the cue ball against a cushion or another ball, in order to progress. Carom transactions, then, are used to 'bounce' a message off one person, so that it 'rebounds' off to the next one (the real target).
Caroms may be used deliberately in a therapy. Usually this is done in order to reinforce a particularly important message, or to convey a point that couldn't be done directly for some reason. The client's partner, or other members of a group, may be the 'bounce-ees' in this respect.

The Carom in Social Media

Looking at Facebook and Twitter etc, it becomes clear how many of the postings, status updates or tweets are not actually intended for the supposed recipient. In fact, caroms are in play all over the place - intentional or not. The 'bouncees' are those others-out-there; the folks on one's Friend list (in the case of Facebook), or just other users in the Twittersphere (which can potentially mean millions of people!). Obviously the more public the settings, the more potential bouncings there might be.

Here are a few examples I have found:

1. The Old-fashioned carom

Simply, an indirect message conveyed in the manner we've just seen. Here's a kindly example:

Now, nearly everyone knows what a nice person Louise is. This is much more powerful than sending a text, or perhaps even a thank-you card (although that might depend on the wording). But it's potent; maybe because of its public nature, as depicted in the diagram below.

Of course, this kind of carom can be used in a not-so-kindly way. I have refrained from posting an example here, but I'm sure you have seen a status update in your feed that's of the "Levon is a doo-doo-head" variety.
I have seen this kind of carom escalate into something really gamey and poisonous; family feuds and bitter disputes have been played out in this manner.

2. "Now Hear This, Now Hear This"

This is an interesting one, where the 'target' of the message is everyone. The bouncee may not even be present amongst that following, but be referred to in the posting itself. Here's an example:

This is a loving parent. What's interesting is that the child isn't actually the recipient of the message. On the social level, this is a birthday greeting to someone (who 'happens' not to be there). I suspect that an ulterior message is being conveyed, and that the 'others-out-there' are the intended recipients (below).

Other forms of this type of carom can easily be found. If you "like" a particular posting or group, for instance, it can be a way of conveying a message to those around. (They will see that you've clicked on "No Tolerance for Domestic Violence", or "I Hate People Who Stand Still on the Escalator", and will know this about you).

3. Social Media as Marketing, or "Hey, Google, Look at Me!"

This is a double-rebound carom, which I think has been born of the digital age. In this situation, users of Facebook, Twitter, and bloggers in general have taken to using their social media as a marketing tool. Google (other search engines are available) is the driver behind this; SEO gurus tell us that Google looks for "quality content", and so we merrily type away in the hope that Google will hear us **. Of course, Google may not hear what we're saying; we just need Google to know we're here. Our Facebook Friends, Followers, and the general public may hear us, and if so that's good - but there is the added dimension of telling Google something about ourselves.

(Pink lines show the second carom phase)


* Berne's Third Rule of Communication: Where there is a transaction on the social and psychological level, the outcome will always be determined by the latter.

** I am aware that many, many people write blogs and use social media for reasons other than marketing. Astute and/or prolific readers will have seen examples of those that do (write for marketing purposes) and those that don't. I can usually tell the difference; there is a difference in tone, and the 'marketing' writer often has little or no engagement with those who comment/tweet back etc.